Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for their first face-to-face talks since the pandemic in which they discussed the future of Syria’s last pocket outside the regime’s control .
The leaders met at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi for Wednesday’s summit. Erdoğan sought to consolidate a March 2020 ceasefire agreement that ended a deadly assault by Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies on Turkish-backed fighters in northwestern Syria. Last year’s fighting brought Ankara and Moscow closer to direct confrontation and threatened Turkey – which is already home to around 4 million Syrians – with a new wave of refugees.
Although ground positions remain mostly deadlocked, the truce has been broken several times over the past 18 months, with a significant increase in regime airstrikes and shelling since June. Ahead of this week’s summit, first responders in the Idlib region said the Syrian Air Force shelling had escalated again and the Turkish military had deployed additional troops to the area. as a deterrent.
“The actions we take together on Syria are of great importance. Peace there depends on Turkey-Russia relations, ”Erdoğan said at the start of the talks on Wednesday.
Putin, who made only a passing allusion to Syria in his opening remarks, said “negotiations with Turkey are sometimes difficult” but the two countries have learned “to find compromises that are beneficial to them. two parts “.
Relations between regional powers are delicate, but the two countries have grown closer in recent years as tensions with the West have increased in Moscow and Ankara. While supporting opposing sides in the wars in the Middle East and the Caucasus, Turkey and Russia have strong trade and energy ties, and the millions of Russian tourists who visit Turkey each year represent a major source of hard currency for the struggling Turkish economy.
Turkey also reportedly lobbied Wednesday for Russian help in eliminating Western-backed Syrian Kurdish forces at its border, and last week said it was ready to acquire more Russian-made military equipment. . Ankara’s 2019 delivery of Russia’s S-400 air defense system alarmed NATO allies, triggered US sanctions and led to Turkey’s withdrawal from the F-35 fighter program.
The cautious but constructive tone of the two leaders suggests that they are ready, at least in the short term, to curb violence in northwestern Syria and work together to neutralize radical groups – a stipulation in the deal. 2020 that Moscow says Turkey has so far failed to deliver.
But for civilians in Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, the compromises brokered by foreign leaders on the shores of the Black Sea appear divorced from the daily impact of Assad’s war of attrition.
About three-quarters of the region’s estimated population of 3.5 million have fled northwest to escape fighting in other parts of Syria: caught between religious extremist groups and the regime, the Living conditions are dire and have worsened since last year’s collapse The Syrian currency and the emergence of the Covid-19.
The northwest is in the throes of a second deadly wave of the virus, which is pushing the already struggling health system to its limits.
“We only have 157 ventilators in the whole region and every day more than 2,000 cases,” said Dr Moustafa Aleado, who leads a medical team trying to provide home care to coronavirus patients in order to alleviate pressure on overwhelmed hospitals.
“WHO [World Health Organization] and other donors have not reacted at all to this new wave… We have only had 158,000 doses of vaccine so far and the Delta variant attacks everyone, not just the elderly, but young and old. the children. We desperately need more vaccines, ”he said.
Covid-19 is exacerbating the already urgent humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting, said Amina al-Besh, a public service volunteer in the frontline village of Shenan.
“People are afraid of the virus, but they are more afraid of the Assad bombs. The families who stayed here in southern Idlib and did not flee, it was because they could not afford it. People are exhausted from years of bombing and displacement, and they fear that if Assad advances they will have to escape and end up in a tent.
The 10-year civil war in Syria claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than half of the pre-war population.
Yet with significant military activity now confined to the northwest and Assad firmly under control, some of Damascus’s neighbors – including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies – now appear to be pushing for the regime’s rehabilitation. Syrian.
Ranim Ahmed, Senior Campaign Communications Officer in Syria, said: “The escalation of attacks by Russia in violation of the ceasefire amid a wave of Covid-19 has been disastrous for civilians and health workers in northwestern Syria. The international community must pressure Russia to stop these brutal attacks on civilians, including children and first responders in homes, camps, schools and hospitals. As Turkey and Russia meet today, they must restore the ceasefire that has given residents much needed respite. “